There has been a quiet revolution in how top teams are choosing to do business
At this time of year, Sky Sports News can often become an extended piece of performance art. As December ticks into January and the transfer window opens, the channel gears itself up for silly season like the manufacturers of Union Jack bunting preparing for a royal wedding. The channel prides itself on bringing us transfers news on a “First, Fast, Now” basis, and firmly sticks to that brief.
A transfer used to be broken into four distinct parts: Offer accepted, medical done, contract signed, deal completed. That process is now fragmented into infinite subsections, including counter and counter-offer and agents publicly talking the transfer up or down to control the media spin. The only unacceptable situation is not being talked about at all. One rule remains: Get yourself on the yellow ticker.
There has long been a garish element to this spectacle, a manufactured car crash of melodrama. But you cannot doubt its success. The biggest shift in football fandom in this country has been the rise in transfer obsession that now encompasses all major deals rather than merely ones involving your own club. In January, that reaches its peak. The sideshow enjoys four weeks in centre stage while the main act still sings.
Except when it doesn’t. Whereas once the January transfer window was a source of genuine – and genuinely entertaining – transfer activity, action has been replaced by inaction. So far this month, the 20 Premier League clubs have spent £38m on new players. Last January, the grand total on 1 February was £170m. In 2017, it was £430m. Two years ago we had roving reporters offering semi-constant updates on actual transfers. Last week, Sky Sports News welcomed former Blue member Antony Costa to choose which Tottenham players best represented Blue song titles. To answer your obvious question: No, I’m not joking.
The problem is certainly not a lack of resources. The Premier League’s club shared – unequally – £4.8bn in annual revenues at the last count. Even if a potential flatlining in the next broadcasting deal may urge caution, reserves are certainly there.
That sharp decline in January transfers is particularly interesting this season given the narrowing gap between the haves and have-nots (and ignoring Liverpool’s consistent majesty). In 13th place, Newcastle United are four points off fifth. In ninth place, Southampton are eight points above the bottom three. That would normally persuade owners to twist rather than stick and attempt a late-season assault on unanticipated success or redemption.
But January has repeatedly proven itself to be a bad time to spend. Last season, the second highest-value permanent arrival (Christian Pulisic did not join Chelsea until the summer) was Dominic Solanke, and who can forget the impact over the second half of last season of Denis Suarez, Peter Crouch, Ryan Babel, Alexis MacAllister and Filip Stuparevic. None come close to Alexis Sanchez, signed to great fanfare and piano tinkling in January 2018 followed by an uncomfortable 18-month silence.
January has always been a seller’s market. If the player is in form then the asking price will be sky-high because the selling club does not wish to lose their impact and derail their season. The alternative is out-of-form or wantaway players who are likely to take time to rediscover their groove. But signings must settle instantly at their new clubs without the aid of a preseason or risk immediate criticism.
But we have also seen a shift in behaviour of Premier League clubs, a quiet revolution in the use of academy graduates. In 2016-17 and 2017-18 combined, a Premier League starting XI with an average age of under 25 was picked only twice. So far in 2019-20, under-25 starting XIs have been picked 26 times. Rather than spend money on an outsider who requires time to settle and will cost a premium, why not put more faith in fringe players? Premier League squads are deeper – quality and quantity – than ever before.
Although the desperate supporters who believe that transfer window success can only be judged by how many semi-banterous announcement tweets their club gets through, the truth is that clever, well-run clubs do not typically spend big in January (Virgil van Dijk is the clanging exception to this rule). It’s like doing the supermarket big shop after skipping breakfast and lunch and then getting home to realise you can’t actually make a square meal out of anything you have bought. Impulsive decisions rarely make for content shoppers.
We should still expect a flurry late in the window, as the tick of the clock becomes deafening for those who have been playing it coy until then. Costa’s insight will probably not be required again, but Jim White will get to walk onto set in his yellow tie wearing the smile of a man who has been told four of the lottery numbers and has a “system” for picking the other two. The totaliser will whir loudly to create an ironic soundtrack to the slow death of EFL clubs.
But the mad scrambles and nervous waits for eight-figure transfers to be ratified by FIFA are a rose- (or perhaps purple sex toy)-tinted memory of the past. If January has never been an ideal time to shop, Premier League clubs might finally have learned that lesson 15 years after the window was introduced. Quietness is not a sign of weakness, but sense. If your squad wasn’t good enough by January, it wasn’t good enough in August. And that suggest problems too systematic to be solved by throwing good money at half-baked ideas.